How executive education must evolve in the digital era

Executive education digital

Innovation in leadership development is imperative to meet today’s fast-changing business demands.

It’s more important than ever that leaders become learners. The challenges created by today’s fast-changing environment mean leaders must be agile at all levels of the organization, or face significant operational and strategic risks. Achieving this means executive education must innovate quickly. Traditional forms of classroom learning will no longer suffice.

The reality is that today’s employees face the need to re-skill much more than was the case in the past. One key driver is the extension of life: it is far from absurd to imagine a 100-year life and a 60-year career. Already, the average number of career changes has changed from two to seven, with employees holding many different jobs. At the same time, a volatile and ambiguous world is driving rapid change in the skills and capabilities that organizations need.

Meeting the demand for re-skilling is increasingly feasible thanks to technological advances that allow learning to reach more of an organization faster than ever. Flexible classrooms, collaboration and smart spaces will allow for more effective adoption of different learning pedagogies and exciting ways of bringing learning to life. AI-led digital instruction is already becoming available. Augmented reality users increased from 60 million in 2013 to 200 million in 2018, and that number is expected to continue to grow.

These trends are forcing a significant re-think of the notion of lifelong learning. We believe that those delivering learning in organizations need to consider the following future-oriented design principles.

1: Don’t focus on novel technologies; focus on novel use cases

It is easy to be awed by technology as learning apps, chatbot coaches and virtual reality learning environments become more readily available. Understandable though it is, this impulse needs to be checked. Applying technology to learning without considering learning outcomes can lead to wasted spending and negative first experiences. Technology is a transformational tool, but it won’t transform in its own right.

Rather, it is the additional exploration, access and experience that technology allows which delivers transformation. We are starting to experiment with augmented reality, supporting the creation of new ‘safe spaces’ wherever they are required in experiential learning. With it, learners can explore everything from technically intricate surgery, to ways of developing boardroom empathy. New technology makes it easier to create these kinds of spaces, and they will enable deeper learning.

2: Look for the next generation of pedagogists outside education

The future of executive and continuing education will be shaped as much by data scientists, AI specialists and computer gamers as it will by pedagogists. As in many industries, the convergence of multiple fields allows for the development of rich new applications that change not only the channel and conditions of learning, but also the impact.

Gamification, for example, is being used to improve engagement in learning. Gaming can be embedded in modules, at individual or cohort levels, to incentivize learning and participation. We have observed engagement rates increase by over 50% thanks to the introduction of social gaming to learning platforms. This trend will undoubtedly continue, particularly as design is increasingly influenced by a younger generation of learners.

Similarly, robotic lectures are not in the realm of science fiction; they are already happening. Duke Corporate Education welcomed its first robotic plenary speaker at its Davos of Human Capital event, and early trials of robotic education delivery are showing that robotic lecturers and coaches can be more easily integrated into education than initially expected.

3: Embrace the short attention span: be ‘when’ and ‘where’ learners want to learn

All of us digest information today in smaller units, very often on our mobile devices. This has opened up access to knowledge from a huge diversity of sources: academic institutions no longer have a monopoly on knowledge. As a result, the very idea of the classroom is in flux, with more than 83% of HR leaders focused on the digital overhaul of their learning offerings and functions. Educators of the future will have to get the right content to the right learner through the right channel at the right time. The ‘when’ and ‘where’ of learning are critical.

We also predict that on-demand learning and coaching applications will continue to increase in prominence. Many are already in play, but a premium will be placed on ease of access, the quality of curation and creation. These will be differentiators in a world of information overload.

4: Use data-driven personalization to increase access and efficiency

Across organizations in all sectors, talent identification and assessment are being profoundly disrupted.

The difficulty of predicting the essential skills of the future, combined with the rise of the growth mindset orientation, have created an appetite for new approaches to assessment that go beyond backward-looking or trait-based models. At the same time, innovative data-rich people analytics are creating new dimensions of capability measurement and more personalized learning pathways.

The age of ‘sheep dip’ or one-size-fits-all learning is over, as better assessment of learners’ strengths and weaknesses and sophisticated capability heatmaps allow learning to be targeted to where it is needed most. As a result, we see increasing demand for personalized learning pathways that make use of optional models and tailored content.

5: The future is social, so leverage social learning

The arrival of learning platforms with social hub functionality has sparked much debate about whether or not social learning is true high-quality learning.

Educationalists must accept that with the rise of the internet, we live in an era of extreme information democratization. Next generation learners will look to their peers and to democratized information sources for knowledge. Self-learning and social learning will outweigh programmatic instruction, and we educators must think of ourselves increasingly as curators, platform-providers and enablers of self-directed learning journeys.

Leveraging social learning to reinforce key aspects of knowledge and to deepen practice and feedback is essential. For example, some of our most successful programmes have been fully or near-fully virtual, platform-based and social-learning-led. Learners in these programmes used collaborative learning, compared their applied knowledge and drew on ‘hacks’ based on the experience of others to create their learning experience, allowing them to ‘dip in’ to digital content on topics of particular interest.

Digital disruption is influencing format, form and channels for executive education in unprecedented ways. There is huge promise for those educational institutions that can adapt to offer enhanced access and efficiency for learners through new technologies. This demands a shift in mindset and offering, and there is no time to wait. The future of learning is now.

Sharmla Chetty is Duke Corporate Education’s president for global markets. Beth Ahlering is regional managing director, Europe, at Duke CE. Learn more about this topic in this free on-demand webinar. This article first appeared on 

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